Oklahoma 30, Notre Dame 34

October 2, 1999 | at South Bend | Attendance 80,012

In Norman, out was coach John Blake, whose strong recruiting abilities initially had university officials convinced he was the right man for the job. Before he arrived, the Sooners had never even had one eight-loss season, but Blake's teams went 3-8, 4-8 and 5-6, for an overall record of 12-22, the worst three-year stretch in school history. Although Oklahoma's record gradually improved under Blake, public perception seemed to grow that he wasn't the coach to return the program to their previously lofty heights, and that didn't sit well at a school that had won six national championships. Oklahoma seemed to be collapsing under the weight of its own standards, while rivals Nebraska and Texas thrived, and it was clearly time for a change.

In came untested Bob Stoops, but who brought a sparkling resume. He had been an all-Big Ten defensive back at Iowa, an then worked his way up the coaching ladder from graduate assistant with the Hawkeyes, to assistant at Kent State, to coordinator at Kansas State, where he built the nation's top-ranked defense in '95. The following year, Stoops worked under Steve Spurrier at Florida coordinating a fearsome defense, helping the Gators win the '96 national championship, and becoming one of the hottest assistants in the nation. Now, at a school that had not had a winning season since 1993, Stoops was being counted on to correct a previous mistake, and the regents were banking on new blood to produce better results on the football field.

The three who came before Stoops all had one common flaw, that their offenses, wishbone or not, never really made an impact. Gibbs went through three offensive coordinators in six seasons, and there were still doubts that Schnellenberger was even interested in the offense. At one point, Blake even changed his offense in midseason and reverted to the wishbone.

Inconsistencies would not exist with Stoops. Impressed with what the spread offense could do with limited personnel, especially after watching Tim Couch light up his Florida defense for two years, he brought in former Kentucky offensive coordinator Mike Leach, the architect of the Wildcats most prolific offense in history, to improve a Sooner passing offense that had averaged 99 yards per game in '98.

It was then that the second key decision was made; Stoops and Leach began recruiting a junior college all-American quarterback from Aberdeen, SD by the name of Josh Heupel. With classes on break and students home for the holidays in late December, Leach sat down with Heupel and showed him game tapes of Couch in the Kentucky offense. Heupel was a left-hander who had been voted a co-captain after just a few months on campus.

The Sooners' defense had ranked among the top ten nationally in '98 and Stoops placed it under the watchful eye of his brother, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. With all of the changes, the Sooners had been picked by the media to finish fifth in the Big 12 South division, but with a few breaks and quick adaptation to a new Florida-typo offense, the Sooners had the potential to go from 5-6 to 7-4 or better.

Before the season got under way, you had to believe that Oklahoma could win its first three games, but what almost no one expected to happen was that the best an opponent could do against the Sooners was come within 21 points. With wins over Indiana State, Stoops' successful debut and Oklahoma's first shutout in six seasons, Baylor and at Louisville, the Sooners were 3-0 for the first time since coach Howard Schnellenberger's only year in Norman in '95, and they had climbed back to #23 in the country after only three games. It was obvious that this was a much better team than a year earlier, and their wide-open offensive attack gave opponents trouble.

As for Heupel, he had settled in nicely to his role, and to the offense, and he was breaking passing records weekly, becoming one of the stories of the early college football season. In his first game against Illinois State, he set school and conference records with five touchdown tosses, finishing the day with 31 of 40 attempts for 341 yards. He followed that with more school and Big 12 game records against Baylor with 37 pass completions, attempting 54 passes for 420 yards and three touchdowns. He then continued the assault on the record books against Louisville as he passed for 429 yards, and tied his record of five touchdowns. In three games, Heupel had completed 71% of his passes, averaged 396 yards per game, and had thrown 13 touchdown strikes.

Next on the list was a trip to Notre Dame. It would be a match up in 31 years between two of the most storied programs in the history of college football, who between them had claimed 14 national championships and produced ten Heisman Trophy winners and 120 consensus All-Americans. The Irish had won eight national titles, the last coming in '88, and produced seven Heisman winners, while Oklahoma had claimed six national titles, the last in '85, and had been home to three Heisman winners. And they each had all the tradition that makes college football so special, including two of the best winning percentages in NCAA history.

The two teams had met eight times in the past, and only once had Oklahoma come out on top, a 40-0 shut out at South Bend in '56. But that was followed by the most famous meeting between the two schools, when coach Terry Brennan's Irish went into Norman and ended Bud Wilkinson and the two-time defending national champion Sooners' NCAA-record 47-game winning streak with a stunning 7-0 win.

Stoops let the fans and media make what they wanted of the game, for he had been more concerned with getting his team prepared. Still, he acknowledged Notre Dame's rich football tradition, but said his concerns are the same as they were the last week, and the same as they will be in weeks to come. "We've got to concentrate on it being another game," he said. "We've got great respect for their tradition, I imagine they do for ours as well. But ... when we get out there and kick it off and start playing, it gets down to what's happening here and now with our players."

South Bend was home to legends from coach Knute Rockne and the Four Horsemen, to George Gipp, John Lujack, Paul Hornung and Joe Montana. It had Notre Dame Stadium, the Golden Dome, "Touchdown Jesus", an aura, and an undeniable mystique. Whether it was fair or not, no one got the respect that Notre Dame received, even if they were terrible, but lately, it had lost what the Irish faithful believed was their rightful place at the pinnacle of college football.

The reasons for Notre Dame's woes were as varied, as they are complex. There's no debating the talent has declined, as the Irish hadn't had a first team all-American since Aaron Taylor and Jeff Burris in 1993, and they had produced only two first round draft picks since '95. Part of the problem was the school's academic standards, though always tough, they had gotten stricter in recent years. But the bigger problem was a change in college football itself.

The 85-scholarship rule had leveled the playing field for all, creating some parity. For most recruits it was no longer enough to show them a scrapbook of Notre Dame's storied history and tell them they'll be on national TV every week. Florida State has some impressive history of its own, so did Nebraska, and just about everybody was on television these days. But no school has the deal that the Irish have.

As an independent with no conference ties and a strong national following, Notre Dame had upset football programs around the country and ensconced its reputation as an elitist program when it signed an exclusive television contract with NBC in '91 for all its home games. It was worth about $9 million annually, but well worth the price for what NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol had described as the "most powerful brand in college sports." But it was all a double-edged sword, for along with all the benefits of being one of the highest profile programs in the country came the pressure, and it fell squarely on the shoulders of the head coach.

At Notre Dame, third-year coach Bob Davie was that man. He had inherited a program that had been rebuilt into one of the nation's elite by Lou Holtz, who resigned after the '96 season, ending 11 years on the sidelines that saw 100 wins, a .765 winning percentage, and the '88 national championship, one of the winningest coaches in school history, and securing his mark in the annals of Notre Dame football. Davie had posted a 7-6 record in '97 and followed that up with a 9-3 mark in '98, and bowl losses ended each of those years.

Before the '99 season took shape, the cleanly run Notre Dame football program took a hit and had to duck the spotlight of unfavorable publicity. The alleged misdeeds committed by Kim Dunbar when she was associated with the school's Quarterback Club had been well documented, and the NCAA was in a tough position because Notre Dame was involved. A punishment was warranted, but not harsh treatment, for the entire affair may have been messy, but it didn't constitute an athletic program out of control, and there were many who felt that the Irish would receive some preferential treatment in the matter. For a program that has prided itself on being a cut above everyone else, any kind of public chastisement would serve its purpose.

On the field, while possessing a lot of young talent, Notre Dame had lost 12 starters, and Davie had done a nice job of restocking the talent, namely incoming freshmen defensive back Gerome Sapp and defensive lineman Cedric Hilliard, but there were too many holes and they didn't have the horses to keep up in '99. Davie had hired Syracuse's Kevin Rogers as its offensive coordinator last spring, but the key to the Irish's hopes lied with fifth-year senior quarterback Jarious Jackson, who in his first as a starter in '98 had thrown for 1,740 yards and 13 touchdowns with just six interceptions, also dazzling with his powerful running style and ability to make plays out of nothing. He had a pair of speedy tailbacks, junior Tony Driver, a former Parade All-America running back who played strong safety in '98, and sophomore Tony Fisher, a former Ohio Mr. Football, but they were running behind a rebuilt offensive line.

A lot was expected of the Irish in '99, but so far, there was nothing but disappointment associated with not playing up to their potential. After a win over Kansas in the Eddie Robinson Classic, three tough losses followed at Michigan, at Purdue, and against Michigan State, all by a total of 19 points and with the Irish looking disorganized and unemotional. It meant a major bowl bid and contending for a national title was out of the question, ending a run of eight consecutive decades in which the Irish have earned at least one crown.

As such, the Irish (1-3) awaited upstart Oklahoma, two teams heading in seemingly opposite directions, eyeing a chance to get their season back on the right track. They had to, for Davie was on the hot seat and needed a victory, while an Oklahoma win would help provide some more legitimacy to their ranking and 3-0 record.

In front of a crowd of 80,012 fans at Notre Dame Stadium, the 145th consecutive sellout, Oklahoma came in with the one of the nation's top offenses, averaging 536 yards a game, and sixth in scoring, averaging 44 point per game. They also featured a defense that was ranked eighth overall and fifth in scoring, permitting only 10.3 points per game. Despite their early struggles, the Irish were not your average team.

Oklahoma's Torrance Marshall tackled Jarious Jackson for a four-yard loss in the first quarter to force Notre Dame to try for a field goal that they missed from inside the 25.

Jarious Jackson, the team's lone captain, had been erratic, throwing four interceptions in his first four games, matching his total for all of last season, and no longer looked like a dangerous threat to run. In fact, because of his inconsistency there had been clamoring for Davie to make the switch to sophomore Arnaz Battle, who had filled in at the end of last season when Jackson was injured. But he showed signs of his old self, scoring on a ten-yard run, to get Notre Dame on the board first. Jim Sanson kicked the extra point, and it was 7-0.

On the ensuing kickoff, senior Brandon Daniels, Blake's quarterback a year earlier, fielded the ball at the 11, and the next thing you knew, he was off on an 89-yard touchdown return. It was Oklahoma's first kickoff return for a score since Eric Bross did it against Iowa State ten years earlier. Clinton (OK) freshman Tim Duncan's extra point tied the game at 7-7.

Next, the Oklahoma defense came up big and recorded a safety early in the second quarter when Irish punter Joey Hildbold fumbled a snap and then smacked the ball out of the end zone to put the Sooners up, 9-7. Then it was Heupel connecting with Jarrail Jackson for a four-yard touchdown, and Duncan's kick made it 16-7 in favor of the visitors.

On Notre Dame's next possession, Ontei Jones had a great block of a punt, and it traveled about 20 yards, but Oklahoma got penalized on a questionable call, and the Irish kept the ball. Jackson then quickly found Joey Getherall for a 58-yard touchdown pass, and Sanson's point pulled Notre Dame to within two, 16-14.

But the Sooners were not done, as Daniels continued to impress and he brought back the ensuing kick 43 yards. This led to Heupel's 26-yard scoring pass to tight end Trent Smith. Just four games in, it was Heupel's 15th touchdown pass of the season, breaking Cale Gundy's school mark of 14 set in 1993. After Duncan's kick, the visitor's had a 23-14 lead, which they took into the locker room.

Oklahoma received the kickoff to open the second half, and Daniels almost broke another return all the way, running it back 68 yards. Heupel and the offense did their thing, and after he hit Daniels for a 15-yard touchdown strike, Duncan's point gave the Sooners a 30-14 lead with 10:01 left in the third quarter, and the Irish looked whipped.

But they were not about to roll over in front of the home fans, and taking what was given by the Oklahoma defense and advantage of poor tackling, Jackson drove the Irish. He and tight end Jabari Holloway hooked up on a 15-yard touchdown pass into the right corner of the end zone to make it 30-21 with 7:20 left in the third to begin a hopeful comeback. Then, Notre Dame reserve cornerback Lee Lafayette intercepted a Heupel pass, his first of the game, at the Irish 44. Jackson guided the offense down to the one, where Driver plunged across to pull the Irish within 30-28 with 2:37 left in the period.

Oklahoma's next drive stalled, and to open the fourth quarter they were forced to punt, and they downed sophomore Jeff Ferguson's boot at the two with 14:45 left in the game. Notre Dame went to work, and runs by Driver and Fisher gave the Irish a dozen yards and some breathing room, and Jackson took firm control.

Five plays later, faced with a third down-and-two at the Notre Dame 33, Jackson turned a broken play into a 23-yard scramble, showing no signs of the turf-toe injury that has hampered him for the last four weeks. Two plays after that, he hit Getherall in the seam of a zone for 29 yards to the Oklahoma seven. Fisher swept right for five yards and offsides on the Sooners moved the ball to the one. From there, Driver bulled in off right tackle, capping the Irish's most impressive drive of the year, and Notre Dame had the lead, 34-30, their first since the first two minutes of the game. Opting for a two-point conversion, Jackson's pass fell incomplete, but with 9:19 left, the Irish had the lead.

Oklahoma's next possession ended at its 40 with 6:51 left. The Sooner defense had played well, but they were getting worn down, as Notre Dame's running game forced the players to remain on the field for 2/3 of the game. They played their hearts out, but with little rotation available due to the lack of adequate depth, it became very difficult to defense against Jackson. He again drove the Irish inside the Oklahoma ten on their next possession, but Sanson again missed a chip shot from in close when his 21-yard field goal attempt hit off the right upright with 2:21 left to play, and the Sooners had one last shot.

But the usually accurate Heupel threw four straight incompletions, a pair of which were dropped, and they turned the ball over on downs with 1:54 remaining. Jackson ran out the clock to win, 34-30.

In once again beating Oklahoma, the Irish's 16-point rally represented their biggest comeback since the 38-37 win at USC in '86, when they trailed 37-20 in the fourth quarter of that game. More importantly, they gained a desperately needed win to avoid losing four in a row for the second time in Davie's three years, and just the second time in South Bend since '63. So with its backs against the wall and Davie's job possibly hanging by a thread, Notre Dame had finally responded, and it proved the Irish had some heart after all, and maybe a little luck.

"We had to break through and win a game," said Davie afterwards in avoiding his second 1-4 start in three seasons. "We really learned how to win this game. We've come back in each of the last three games, and we realize you can't keep coming back and not winning."

For his part, when Oklahoma went up 30-14, Jackson remembered all too well what it was like two years earlier, and he wasn't about to go through that again. "I said we've got to get this victory. I said if I have to put an IV in my arm after the game, we're going to get this victory," offered the quarterback. He was the unquestionable heart and soul of the Irish who was 15 of 21 for 276 yards passing and two touchdowns, and rushed for 107 more and another score, for a career-high 368 yards in total offense. And Jackson was the most dangerous when all the receivers were covered and he decided to run, finally putting together the complete game that coaches and fans had expected.

"That was basically the turning point in the ball game," Heupel said of Lafayette's interception. "If we continue to drive in that series, we're sitting really well. I focused on one receiver, made a bad decision and they capitalized on it." The Irish scored a touchdown to pull within two points.

Then came the Irish's 98-yard march. "Once we got the first down, it was all downhill from there," said Jackson. "I just wanted to get the ball away from our end zone because you can't do much when you're down on your own two-yard line."

Notre Dame racked up 566 total yards, more than twice the average against a defense that had given up 263 a game. After averaging more passing yards than rushing yards this season, the Irish also put together a respectable running game for the first time since rushing for 363 yards against Kansas in their opener. Fisher led the way with 140 yards on 26 carries, joining Jackson in breaking the 100-yard barrier since their only win. Getherall had a career-high 133 yards on six receptions. In addition, the Notre Dame offense controlled the clock with 40+ minutes.

"Notre Dame just basically whipped us in the second half. Their will to win was greater than ours," said Stoops afterwards. "Jarious Jackson just did it all himself. He was a major factor and the difference in the game. He made us look foolish at times, missing tackles and giving up big runs."

Meanwhile, the Oklahoma offense never got on track during the game, as the Irish defense held them to just 237 total yards, less than half their average. Heupel was 22-of-40 passing for 168 yards, three touchdowns, and the one costly interception, and a lot of receivers dropped passes that should have been caught. Leading a ground game that was stuffed and could manage a mere 69 yards was Micheail Thornton, who gained 56 yards on eight carries. The only real highlight was Daniels' school-record 229 yards on returns, and he set a new Sooner record with 204 kickoff return yards, including the 89-yard touchdown, replacing Stanley Wilson who had 133 against Arizona State in the '83 Fiesta Bowl. Daniels also finished the game with two catches for 29, and he carried once for ten.

The game also showed that Oklahoma had some great talent, but exposed a lack of depth, something that separates a team from national contention. But it was an amazing turnaround from a year earlier.

Source: Jeff Linkowski

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